Keep Standing Firm in Freedom Gal. 3:25-5:1
My eighteen-year-old son graduated from high school last spring. The ceremony was a great celebration for both the graduates and their parents, symbolizing the passage from childhood and dependency to greater freedom on the journey to becoming an independent, responsible adult.
How ludicrous it would have been for the kindergarten teacher of these students to reappear, proclaiming that in order to keep their diplomas, all graduates must now report to her in September to review their ABCs. You do not take young people who have matured and are ready to accept adult responsibility and treat them like children. Even the graduates would have said, “We are not going back!”
Yet this scenario parallels what was happening theologically in the Galatian churches. The Galatians had believed the gospel of Christ under Paul’s preaching. They had truly been saved, received the Holy Spirit, and entered into a relationship with God under the terms of the New Covenant. In that sense, they were all “graduates.” They had the status of full adult sons of God with the freedom and responsibility that goes along with it. But after Paul left the region of Galatia, others arrived, teaching that to maintain their adult status, they must continue in “kindergarten” by keeping the external obligations of the Law. What amazes Paul is not the teaching but the fact that the Galatians themselves agreed to it! They went back to kindergarten!
In Galatians 3:25–5:1, Paul argues that the Galatians are adults in Christ; and it is not proper that they go back to the Law. Moreover, God does not want them to do so but wants them to act as free, mature adults. Thus Paul exhorts the Galatians to recognize who they are in Christ as mature sons (and daughters), to shun the bondage of the elemental aspects of the Law, and to rejoice in the freedom they have in Christ.
Believers Are Adult Sons of God (Gal. 3:25–4:7)
Paul’s teaching focuses on the believer’s change of status. He illustrates this truth with the Roman custom of a son moving from the status of child to full adult son. The key, in 4:2, is that this change occurred at “the time appointed of the father” (usually age 16). Paul teaches that this important time has passed on God’s progressive calendar because, as he writes in 3:25, “after faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gk. paidayoyos, meaning “child-custodian”). In other words, the faith that Paul speaks about refers to the whole New Covenant relationship believers now have in Christ, which the Lord instituted at the Last Supper, sealed by His death, and poured out at Pentecost. Because believers now live in a time when the Law is “written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:15) through the indwelling of the Spirit, to regress and try to keep the Law externally would not only be foolish but would deny what God has done in Christ.
In 3:26–29, Paul makes three applications concerning how this change of status affects believers. First, Paul says that all believers are “sons of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 26). The key word here is sons, which in Greek means “adult sons” as opposed to children. Paul makes the point that adults no longer need the supervision that children do. Upper-class children in his day had custodians to mind them. However, when they came of age, they no longer needed the custodian. They had matured and were considered responsible adults. Thus believers no longer need the trappings of the Law because they, too, are considered full adults.
Second, in Christ, God considers all believers equal. He does not regard people according to their racial, social, or gender distinctions. Some sons may be more faithful and obedient, but all are equally treated as sons.
Third, as God’s sons, believers are heirs to the Abrahamic promise. This is the “good news” for Gentiles—that in Christ, they can participate with believing Israel as recipients of the blessings of the Abrahamic promises of salvation. All believers, then, are coheirs with Christ of the Abrahamic promise.
Paul further explains his illustration of sonship in 4:1–7. Just as a Roman boy progressed in status from child to adult, so, too, believers are adult sons, free from their guardian—the external rituals of the Law. This change occurred at the “fullness of the time,” when Christ came (v. 4). Believers now can relate to the Father as full sons and not as children because the Spirit now indwells all believers, enabling them to relate to the Father on a more intimate level.
Paul concludes, “Wherefore, thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (4:7). The point here is that adults have freedom they are to use responsibly. Thus they should no longer be treated as children. Nor should they regress to the ways of childhood.
Paul’s Plea: Don’t Turn Back (Gal. 4:8–31)
In this lengthy section, Paul pleads with the Galatians to consider what they are doing. He does this in three ways: (1) with the illustration of slavery versus freedom (4:8–11); (2) with a personal plea based on his relationship with them as their spiritual mentor (4:12–20); and (3) with a biblical example to illustrate their situation, through which he exhorts them to choose freedom (4:21–31).
First, in verses 8–11, Paul again contrasts the Galatians’ past and present status before God. As pagans, the Galatians were slaves to pagan beliefs and false gods. But then they came to know the true God. Instead of going on in grace, Paul says they returned to the “weak and beggarly elements” (v. 9) of bondage that they knew previously. Of significance here is that Paul equates Judaizing legalism with pagan elemental teaching. Both systems are based on human achievement and neither lead to a true relationship with God. So Paul’s question is, “How can you go back?”
Second, in verses 12–20, Paul issues a personal plea. He recalls the relationship he thought he had with the Galatians, one based on mutual respect and love. In Acts 13:13—14:28, Luke records the events of Paul’s ministry among the people of Galatia, where he nearly died from his stoning in Lystra. He was also physically ill there (4:13–14). Because of Paul’s personal sacrifice on the Galatians’ behalf, they responded to him in kind, regarding him as one who spoke the truth of God. How, then, could they be so easily led astray not only from Paul’s teaching but also from their confidence in him as their spiritual father? As Paul says in 3:1, it is as if they were under a spell.
Thirdly, in verses 21–31, Paul takes an illustration from Genesis concerning Hagar and Sarah, through which he exhorts the Galatians toward freedom. Paul states in 4:24 that he is speaking allegorically, which means he understands that the Genesis passage is not literally speaking about New Covenant believers but that, in a typological way, it can be applied to their situation. That is why he asks rhetorically in 4:21, “do ye not hear the law?” (meaning the Torah, which included Genesis).
In Paul’s analogy (from Genesis 16 and 21), Hagar and earthly Jerusalem represent Judaism, typological of slavery to the Law under the Old Covenant. Sarah represents the believers’ freedom in Christ under the New Covenant, which seeks the heavenly Jerusalem. Based on this comparison, Paul quotes from Isaiah 54:1 that those of the new Jerusalem should rejoice because they now occupy the position of blessing as heirs of the promise of Abraham (v. 27). Second, based on the exhortation to Abraham in Genesis 21:10, Paul exhorts the Galatians to “Cast out the bondwoman and her son (v. 30),” meaning they should reject Judaizing teaching and teachers and choose instead to be free.
Stand Firm in Freedom (Gal. 5:1)
Paul concludes this section by saying that Christ set us free so we could live in freedom. To return to the slavery that Christ died to redeem us from would be an insult and a tragedy. We would be like slaves who remained in servitude even after someone had paid one million dollars to purchase their freedom. Bondage is not what God wants for his sons. God wants his children to act like adults and serve Him from willing hearts because they freely choose to be faithful and obedient sons. Freedom in Christ does not mean doing whatever one wants and falling into a life of licentiousness. Paul says in Romans 6:16 that everyone is a slave of either righteousness (God) or unrighteousness (Satan). But Satan’s slaves are in chains, and God’s servants are not.
The Judaizers’ offer was, in Paul’s words, to be “entangled again with the yoke of bondage,” meaning the Law (5:1). Why does Paul see the Law as bondage here but as something good in Romans 7:12? The answer is not in the Law itself, for the Law itself is good, teaching us about the righteousness of God. The problem is our approach to it. If we see the Law as commandments to be kept in order to achieve or maintain a righteous standing before God, then it becomes a yoke of bondage. If, by contrast, we see our righteousness as coming only from Christ based on faith, then it becomes something internal through the regeneration of our hearts by the work and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Obedience then comes from a heart that wishes to please God, rather than from a desire to attain righteousness or a certain standing before God. That is what it means to be an adult son or daughter before Him.
Paul exhorts the Galatians to live like the free grownups in Christ that they are and not to let someone talk them into reverting to childish disciplines. Unfortunately, many still teach like the Judaizers in Paul’s day, propagating the same error that believers must do something to maintain their status before God. Such doctrine thwarts grace and belittles the sufficient work of Christ on our behalf. Believers, of course, should do good works (Eph. 2:8–10). But the difference is the relationship between the believer and his or her actions. God does not intend Christian living to be a yoke of bondage but a joyful and abundant life because of the supernatural ability from the Spirit to live righteously and please God from one’s heart.